The Most Sacred Freedom

Religious Liberty in the History of Philosophy and America's Founding

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Will R. Jordan, Charlotte C. S. Thomas
  • Atlanta, GA: 
    Mercer University Press
    , April
     192 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Recent court cases involving the Masterpiece Cakeshop, the Little Sisters of the Poor, and Hobby Lobby have moved questions about the principle and the practice of religious liberty in America to the forefront of public and academic discussion. Eight papers from a conference on that subject at Mercer University were collected to form The Most Sacred Freedom, with the expressed purpose of considering “either the American founders’ conceptions of religious liberty or any antecedent thinkers in the tradition who might have informed the founders’ views” (1). As is often the case with collections of this sort, the volume is uneven in terms of focus, relevance, and quality.

The first four chapters are designed to consider “important texts and historical figures in the Western tradition that inform our understanding of religious liberty” (2). The first chapter compares the biblical account of the flood to a Mesopotamian account in order to establish the necessary “mental environment” for liberty (18). The second chapter recounts the use of religious tolerance by Julian the Apostate to reduce and control the dominant influence of Christianity in the Roman empire and suggests that religious liberty can thus be employed to control majority factionalism in a society. Chapter 3 makes a clear distinction between religious toleration and religious liberty and urges Americans to embrace the latter rather than the former. The final chapter of the first section analyzes Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s notion of “civil religion,” and suggests that public religion is useful in order to establish and maintain a unifying “social spirit” that is necessary for “human freedom to flourish” (97).

Chapters 5 through 8 focus more narrowly and directly on American political thought and the American constitutional order. The fifth chapter, written by John Witte, is easily the gem of the collection. Witte presents a magisterial overview and explanation of the notion of separation of church and state, tapping into the words of various founders to present “five distinct understandings” of that concept during the founding and early republic eras (104). With regard to today’s understanding, Witte notes that only “a few of the American founders” subscribed to the strict separationist understanding that Justice Black “read … into” the establishment clause of the First Amendment (111, 113). Witte observes that separation of church and state is “only one principle of religious freedom in American law” and that it is “balanced” by other principles such as “liberty of conscience, freedom of exercise, religious pluralism, [and] religious equality” (104). He restores the often-missing emphasis on the free exercise clause, reminding readers that it “outlaws government proscriptions of religion” including acts that “unduly burden the conscience, restrict religious expression, [and] discriminate against religion” (117). Witte ends his tour de force with the following admonition: “The Court must be at least as zealous in protecting religious conscience from secular coercion as protecting secular conscience from religious coercion” (119).

Chapter 6 compares the views and approach of the founders with those of Alexis de Tocqueville, argues that both “envisioned a kind of ‘weak’ civil religion” based on religion’s usefulness, and warns that religious freedom cannot survive “the ambitions of democracy” if religion is not generally believed to be true (4, 130). The latter observation might explain recent assaults on religious freedom. Sections of chapter 7 on the development of corporate personhood, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and the varying opinions of the Justices that heard the Hobby Lobby case are interesting and establish important context. The volume concludes with a chapter on the nature of the God of the American founders and attempts to answer the question: “What Sort of God Calls for Liberty of Conscience?”

While each of the essays contains nuggets of value, each (except for Witte’s fifth chapter and Scott Yenor’s sixth chapter) has at least one significant flaw. The general problem in the chapters ostensibly dealing with the philosophical roots of the American founding and influences on the founders is that most of the authors do not even attempt to demonstrate a link between the subjects of their essays and the American founders, instead discussing individuals and works that simply have something to do with religious liberty and that precede the founding of the US. It is very unlikely that the American founders drew on the thinking or example of the Roman emperor Julian, Cecilius Calvert, or Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and it is equally doubtful that they drew religious liberty principles from the biblical account of the flood. No such connection is established in these essays.

In the final chapter, Michael Novak does a commendable job of demonstrating that the American founders were not deists, but falsely assumes that if they were not deists, they must have been Christians. This ignores other belief systems that some of the key founders embraced, such as theistic rationalism. Novak’s assumption that James Madison was a Christian causes him to ascribe a nature to the God of the Bible and Christianity that the Bible does not affirm. Madison claims that “the Creator” gives every man a right to worship “in the way that her conscience directs” [as Novak puts it] (170). This is the principle at the core of American religious liberty, but is it true? Does the God of the Bible allow God’s people to worship in any way they choose? What about the golden calf incident, or the striking down of Nadab and Abihu? The book of Leviticus is all about theway God demands that the Israelites worship. Does Jesus not say that no one comes to the Father but through him and that the way of salvation is narrow? Novak himself quotes Jesus as saying that worshipers must worship in spirit and truth (164)—there is no option. If God gives all people a right to worship as they see fit, then must not God accept all forms of worship and all religions?

I recommend that everyone read John Witte’s magnificent chapter in The Most Sacred Freedom and that those generally interested in various explorations of religious liberty read the rest of the volume.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Gregg L. Frazer is Professor of History and Political Studies at the Master's University.

Date of Review: 
May 31, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Will R. Jordan is an associate professor of political science at Mercer University. He received his BA from Washington & Lee University and his PhD in Political Science from Loyola University Chicago. Jordan also serves as codirector of Mercer’s McDonald Center for America’s Founding Principles.

Charlotte C. S. Thomas is a professor of philosophy at Mercer University, director of the philosophy, politics, and economics program, and codirector of the McDonald Center for America’s Founding Principles. 


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